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A roomful of silent young men wearing glasses slap small tiles down on wooden tables, in a crowded gentleman’s club. Shogi, a chess-like board game, has an ardent following in Japan, where big cities host players in special buildings and tournaments win news headlines. This is the background to Satoshi: A Move for Tomorrow (Satoshi no Seishun), the true story of shogi prodigy Satoshi Murayama, whose first title match was at age 23 and whose tragic death at 29 sent shock waves through the gaming world. Though the film gets off to a slow start and seems to be going the way of its tacky English title (the Japanese translates as Santoshi’s Youth after the biography on which the film is based), gradually the sentimentality morphs into a genuinely touching portrait of a driven genius who knows game time is running out. It bowed as the closing film at Tokyo and should easily win invites to other festivals.
As in his previous feature Space Brothers about astronaut siblings, director Yoshitaka Mori has an eye for catchy subjects, and the eccentric Murayama (1969-1998) is certainly one of them. Sickly from birth, he was diagnosed with nephrotic syndrome as a child and with bladder cancer in his twenties. As he admits, it was because of his useless body that he turned to shogi. Wracked with pain, he endured his physical symptoms with the stoicism of a samurai, as he rose to beat the reigning Meijin champion Yoshiharu Habu in a historic match.
Shogi no doubt has its fascination, but it’s not kung fu onscreen. Instead of chess pieces, it’s played with flat tiles which are whacked down on a wooden board by two hunched-over players, who sit on the floor on their knees for hours on end. The big matches are held in traditional Japanese rooms with only the two formally attired players and a referee/timer present, while board moves are televised to the audience via a no-nonsense overhead camera.
The film captures the exotic ceremony surrounding these matches, though truth to tell, they seem more stressful than exciting. Clearly the drama can only come from the players, and slowly but surely Kenichi Matsuyama, who plays the role of the clam-like Murayama, opens up just enough to let the viewer share his anguish and devastation at not having a shot at a family, kids, a normal life.
It’s startling to hear a commentator describe Murayama’s style as “wild and passionate” when all we see onscreen is his silent intensity. But everything is relative: compared to his cold, emotionally distant rival Habu (a reserved Masahiro Higashide), he’s quite the rebel, reading girls’ comics, falling down drunk on the street, and insulting his less brilliant colleagues. These less-than-endearing habits bring the eccentric fellow to life, like his awkward, pudgy figure and indifference to grooming. At one point, he explains why he doesn’t like to cut his hair or nails: “they want to live and grow.” Kosuke Mukai’s screenplay leaves it at that, letting the audience associate it with Murayama’s own wistful desires he cannot realize.
His love of life isn’t stronger than his obsession with shogi, however. After he’s forced to undergo radical surgery, his doctor warns him that continuing to push himself to the limit as a professional gamer will be fatal. He ignores the advice and attends his last games, barely able to hold on, with a nurse waiting outside the door.
There is space for precious few other characters in Murayama’s story. All smiles and encouragement, Lily Franky (Like Father, Like Son) doesn’t make much of an impression as his mentor Nobuo Mori, and his fellow shogi buffs are cannon fodder for his cruel, biting wit. The only man who earns his respect is the brilliant Habu, who sweeps up shogi titles without ever changing expression. After a crucial match between the two of them, he surprises Habu by inviting him to dinner, alone, in a scene that manages to be electrifying even though it’s shot practically from one face-on camera set-up. Their relief at finding a kindred spirit who understands them creates one of the film’s most genuine moments.
Production companies: Kadokawa
Cast: Kenichi Matsuyama, Shota Sometani, Lily Franky, Ken Yasuda, Masahiro Higashide, Tokio Emoto, Michitaka Tsutsui, Keiko Takeshita, Toshiyuki Kitami
Director: Yoshitaka Mori
Screenwriter: Kosuke Mukai, based on a book by Yoshio Osaki
Producers: Ryoko Nozoe, Yoshitaka Takeda, Takuro Nagai, Takeshi Kikuchi, Kazuto Takida
Executive producer: Shinichiro Inoue
Director of photography: Katsumi Yanagijima
Production designer: Norifumi Ataka
Costume designer: Haruki Koketsu
Editor: Takashi Sato
Music: Yoshihiro Hanno
Casting: Sawako Ozu
World sales: Kadokawa Corporatoin
Venue: Tokyo Film Festival (Special Screenings)
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